Can I Have A Dock? What About A Boathouse?

Can I Have a Dock? What About a Boathouse?

hollyDocks 15 Comments

Can I Have A Dock Or A boathouse?


This is an important question. There are some lakes that, for one reason or another, do not allow the wonderful types of docks that we enjoy here at Smith Mountain Lake. Some lakes have such a large variation in water levels that stationary boathouses are not possible. Other lakes have such strict environmental and building code regulations that a nice boathouse is not allowable. Some lakes are in hurricane belts and therefore do not allow indoor structures that may be more susceptible to being damaged and causing damage to other properties in high winds.

Smith Mountain Lake is blessed with a wide assortment of boathouse and dock styles and sizes. However, in the past several years limitations have been placed on the construction of new docks. It used to be that waterfront property owners could build just about any type and size of dock they wished. They could even build living quarters above their boat slip (there are still a few of these around the lake now). As the lake has become so popular, the rules for dock size, style, and placement needed to change.

In 2003, the definitive Shoreline Management Plan was issued by Appalachian Power (American Electric Power or AEP) in conjunction with The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This plan defines guidelines for docks, erosion control, beaches, home sites, and much more. The following sections highlight some of the regulations covered under Shoreline Management.

Can I Have A Boathouse?

Allowance for a Dock

Appalachian Power wants people to have a dock for their property. However, it is critical that the dock not hamper anyone else’s enjoyment of the lake. Therefore, to install, expand, or significantly refurbish a dock on your property, you must apply for a permit. This is inexpensive and not overly complicated, but it must be done correctly. This permit will require that you draw the dock on a plat of your lot, showing the dimensions, style, and other information. Ask a realty agent if they are willing to assist you in filing a dock permit, or call AEP at (540) 489-2556.

Lots subdivided before the Shoreline Management Plan went into effect in 2003 can generally obtain a dock permit. However, lots developed after the Plan generally need to have at least 100 feet of shoreline to obtain a dock permit unless a dock easement was provided at some point. (There is a rumor that all lots must have 100 feet of shoreline to build a dock, but this is not the case – it is generally only lots developed after the Plan went into effect. Most lots allow for a dock since developers generally make sure new lots meet this requirement).

If you’re buying a lot or a home without a dock, you must check the length of the shoreline to verify what is reported in the realty listing. If there are less than 100 feet, you should also have your agent verify the year the lot was subdivided. Note that it is not always obvious where to measure the shoreline. For example, I recently sold a point lot that had about 200 feet of shoreline reported on the plat at the 800-foot contour line. The actual shoreline, however, is at the 795-foot contour line, and the shoreline there exceeded 300 feet. This was a wonderful benefit to the owners but can work against you as well. Some of the regulations pertain to the shoreline at the actual lake level of 795 feet above the shoreline; others pertain to 800 feet above sea level. AEP regulates up to the 800-foot contour line.

Can I Have a Dock?

Dock Setbacks

To ensure that enjoyment of the lake is not hampered, new docks must be positioned at least 15 feet inside the property line and at least 30 feet from any other structure (e.g. the neighbor’s dock).

If the dock is in a cove, and you are not the last dock in the back of that cove, the dock must not extend across more than one-third of the cove. This rule provides for one-third of the cove on each side to be utilized by docks, and leaves one-third in the middle for boats to pass through. If your property is in the back of the cove, and your dock would not encroach on neighbors’ boating, it is possible in some cases to have the standard setbacks as well as the rules regarding the width of the dock across the cove waived. This may require obtaining permission from neighbors. Most coves on Smith Mountain Lake are not that narrow, so this rule does not often come into play.
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Comments 15

  1. what are the regs as far as boathouses concerned? Can you build a new one?
    Can you live above the boats?

  2. Hi Ashley!

    In general, most lots will allow a dock/boathouse. There are rules that would prohibit a real living space above a new dock, however many older docks have this feature.

    Feel free to give me a call if I can assist you further! (877) SML-HOME

  3. i have an old dock that is falling down and want to rebuild it i have 365ft of shoreline with a boathouse and docking .the old dock is going to be smaller where do i get a permit for this and what does it take. thanks

  4. Hi Paul,

    Where can the rules and regulations be found online for the 2003 Shoreline Management Plan
    Appalachian Power (American Electric Power or AEP) in conjunction with The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

    I’ve searched and searched and have yet to come across them. Surprised that you did not post a link here on this page. 🙁

    Thanks in advance Paul!

  5. Hi Paul,

    What do you know about the requirements to have old docks not in use removed. Our neighbors have built a new dock and the old one remains. I don’t believe it has been used in years. It sits very close to our property which is in a small cove and is an eye sore. Let me know.


  6. Hi Paul

    I have a lot at the back of a cove with 137′ of shoreline according to the county gis property map, and also the lot was created prior to 2003. Its in Walnut Run. I have a fixed pier dock/walkway but want to get a permit for a floating/roofed/lift dock installed next-to or out from the fixed dock. I was told I needed permission from all the lots (owners) that the new dock would cross in front of. I was able to get permission from all but one guy (who’s lot would actually be least impacted). He says he wouldn’t want to look at my dock when he looks into the cove at the far left side of his property (but when he builds his dock he will be looking directly at his own dock, so if he could see another dock farther in on the cove, it wouldn’t seem that it would be a big deal (so much for being a good neighbor). Is there any way to get a waiver or permit without this one neighbors permission?

    I am trying to sell the lot (lot 14 on Hickory Pl Walnut Run), but without the dock permit, am having no luck. Also without that permit, the value of the lot is significantly less. I have even offered the refusing neighbor money for his OK, but no luck. I have now priced the lot well below what I paid a couple of years ago and still no takers. Its a very nice lot with a decent view and the fixed dock is a plus, but not as good as having a dock with a roof and lift would be.



  7. I own a lakefront property with a friend. It has approx 350′ of lake frontage and 2 docks. We do NOT wish to change the basic size or shape of either dock. We WOULD like to put a tiki bar and water ski lock up “shed” on the larger of the 2 docks. Can you give me a heads up on the size…or whether we are restricted in some way from building a tiki bar/lock up????Thank you in advance

  8. Your comment “Some of the regulations pertain to the shoreline at the actual lake level of 795 feet above shoreline; others pertain to 800 feet above sea level. AEP regulates up to the 800 foot contour line.” Okay, so how are we supposed to distinguish between the three (3)? Shoreline, Sea Level or Contour Line…I’m confused!

    1. Hi Becki,

      Thanks for visiting our website and for your excellent question. There is actually another factor! The 803′ above sea level contour. More on that in a moment.

      First of all, the lake level itself is at about 795 feet above sea level. It generally fluctuates between 793′ and 796′, but the power company often releases the water through the dam when it is above 795.

      SML generally doesn’t fluctuate like many other lakes in the South. Waterfront owners at some lakes have docks with 100′ walkways out to them because the water level goes down so far that they have to do this to keep their boats out of the mud certain times of year. Thankfully this is not the case here.

      Secondly, the power company regulates up to the 800′ level. This means they can tell you not to cut down too many erosion-controlling trees and shrubs in the range from the lake level (about 795′) up to 800′. This is a very good rule for the lake as a whole, and it is generally not too hard to comply with. They will allow you to cut down view-blocking trees and replace them with an “equivalent” amount of shrubs.

      The power company also prohibits beaches to be built in that zone, which is good because beaches can really only be maintained long term where they occur naturally. People who try to cart in sand find it washed away in time.

      Other dock and related structures are regulated in that zone as well. In summary, you can put a 6′ wide walkway to your dock through that 800′ to the lake level zone.

      The 795 to 800′ zone can vary depending on the slope of the property since that zone is measured in vertical feet. On a very steep slope that may only be the last 7′ or so of the lot (the hypotenuse of a triangle 5′ tall and 5′ long). On a gentle sloping lot, that 5′ tall zone could be (say) the last 50 feet (or more) of the lot.

      Third, there is also the 803′ (some say 802.7′) contour that must be dealt with. This is pretty easy. This is the 100 year flood plain. Insurance companies don’t like you building a home below this level as you can imagine. A few homes are already built in that zone, and they need to get flood insurance. Others don’t need flood insurance.

      So how far does a home need to be built from the shore on a medium to steeply sloped lot? In Bedford County, it would be 25′ away from the water, which is very close. In Franklin County I think the distance is a bit less. This is per county ordinance. On a gently sloped lot, the distance could be further because you need to get the home above the 803′ level to avoid flood insurance.

      It would be easier to draw this than to explain in an email. Do you plan to come to the lake soon? I will be glad to show you in person. What are your plans, Becki, and how can I best serve you?

      Thanks again for your great question.

  9. I’ts good to learn about putting in a dock. Is getting a permit to put in a dock a universal rule, no matter where you are. My wife and I are looking at buying a lakefront property, but we’d definitely want to put in a dock. Hopefully, we can do that!

    1. Post

      There are some sort of regulations at every lake. Here AEP issues the permits but before 2002 only a county building permit was required. The regulations since 2002 have changed and evolved so it’s important to get current information where ever you buy. AEP has a website with all of the regulations plus a section of “Frequently Asked Questions” which might be helpful. Here is their website

  10. We own property with a dock but no storage building/boathouse. What is the process for getting a boathouse built? Starting from square one, need a reputable contractor to give us some options. Do we also need to go thru AEP? Thanks for any help you can give.

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